A while ago one of our mission partners included a prayer request for their evening congregation. He asked that God might break up one or two cliques that had formed.
It was a bold request. It was a great request. And it gave me pause for thought.
Word then reached me from a source I trust, that one or two people at CCB were feeling a litttle fringy. I don’t think it’s a serious problem, in the sense that it’s widespread. There aren’t loads of disenchanted, disenfranchised people wandering around in a strop. At least, not to my knowledge! But, of course, it’s a serious problem for those that are feeling it. The individual that spoke to me felt that the existence of apparent cliques might not be helping the situation.
No leadership team, worthy of the name, wants anyone to feel excluded. But unless those who feel excluded actually speak to the leadership team there’s always a bit of guesswork involved. I’d want to shape the advice we give once I know a little more about the situation, personality and maturity of the person involved.
But are there general principles that help us with this issue?
In the first place, it’s got to be worth being clear on what a church is. A church is defined by who we are and what we do.
Who we are is a gathering of Christians. Church is a group of people united to Christ, united by Christ and united in Christ. If anyone is a Christian and decides to meet with us then they’re a part of that. And they ought to feel a part of that. Church is a family and when a new brother or sister joins us, they need to feel the love! So no one should ever feel fringy and excluded. A church is being less than a church when that happens. There have been times when the rugby clubs I’ve belonged to have felt more like a church than the church I’ve belonged to. Not in all aspects, obviously. But one of the things that continues to amaze me is that within a rugby club, if you love rugby, then you’re in. Some of the most malco-ordinated, emotionally awkward and social misfits are accepted and unconditionally welcomed. The love of rugby transcends the things that would normally keep us apart. That’s one of the reasons I love rugby clubs.
What we do is encourage one another to live for Christ. Church is a group of people that do things together to stimulate and encourage our faith in Christ. A church programme is designed to help people grow in their knowledge and love of Christ. And so if we’re feeling excluded I guess it could mean that we feel that we’ve not been able to get involved in the church activities. That needs to be addressed by the church leadership. They need to make it obvious how people can make a contribution. We’ve done that recently at CCB with a recent focus on making people aware of ‘opportunities for service’. It was little more than a list of jobs with tick boxes to receive more information. But it’s had an overwhelming response; people have wanetd to volunteer and be useful. But the individuals themselves need to be proactive in getting involved. We can’t simply be passive passengers waiting to be asked. I know that people who feel excluded don’t want to be told to get involved but, in all honesty, it’s when we join a team of people doing something worthwhile that we begin to get to know them. That’s especially true of the lads. We bond by shared activity, not primarily by talking to one another! I cite a piece of scientific experimentation as proof of what most blokes have always known.
Apparently, psychologists did an experiment with a bunch of 10 year old boys and girls. They put two girls in a room with two chairs for 10 minutes. Very quickly the girls got the chairs, put them opposite each other and chatted. They also put two boys in the room with two chairs for 10 minutes. After a while the lads got the chairs, put them side by side, facing the wall and asked each other a series of monosyllabic questions.
Brand new people at chruch are unlikely to be given a job with lots of responsibility until the church leadership has been able to assess their suitability for responsibility.
But let’s think a little about some likely contributory factors to the feeling of alienation.
- It could be that you’re a little odd. This is not an easy one to say. It’s a little easier to write. What I mean is that, generally speaking, if we’re slightly quirky people usually take some time to appreciate us. That’ll be the same in church. Church is full of Christians and so it’ll be welcoming and accommodating of your personality traits. But Christians are also people and so we may take some time to get used to your eccentricity! But they’ll get there, I promise.
- It could be that we’re shy. If we’re not someone who finds it easy to initiate friendships or even conversations then we might find ourselves on the periphery of church life. I think the people at our church are exceptional at providing an initial welcome to people. I’m not sure that we’re as good at helping people to feel integrated into church life. We want church to solve all our problems, but it can’t. If we’re shy it’s a better place to be than the world. But we’re still shy and we’ll need to work on that and manage our expectations.
- It could be that we’re not around that much. It’s the nature of churches like ours that we have guests and visitors every week. If we don’t pitch up frequently then others won’t invest their precious time and energy in someone who isn’t really investing in the church family.
- It could be that you’ve not joined a small group. Those are the contexts in which it’s easiest to get to know others. They don’t have to become lifelong friends but they’ll help you get integrated into church life. We’re not a big church but even in a church of our size [evening congregation about 70] we need to break down into smaller groups if we’re going to meet the same people each week. I assume that if someone doesn’t join a small group then it’s likely that they’ll remain fringy and peripheral until eventually they drift away. It’s why I bang on about getting people into a small group.
- It could be that others are cliquey. Often this is an issue of perception rather than reality. The group or individuals accused of being cliquey would, most likely, be horrified. But we need to be a little self aware. Our close friendship groups are a source of great encouragement for us but to others they look exclusive and unwelcoming.
How can we solve it?
All churches need to be proactive in dealing with this issue. It’s not a serious issue for us at CCB. But it is for those of us who feel it. In general I’m thrilled at the way that God uses us to look after the people He sends our way. But it’s not a great state of affairs if God brings people to us and after a while they still don’t feel that they’re part of what’s going on.
If we’re the one feeling excluded then let’s get the bit between our teeth and do what has to be done to address the issues. Some people come to church anticipating that all the problems they experience in the world will disappear. If we’re not socially able in a normal context we shouldn’t be surprised if we also struggle in a church context. So let’s not automatically blame the chruch for our issues. That’s not fair.
If we’re the one who might be contributing to this feeling of exclusion then don’t loosen your friendship group and be any less committed to your friends. But widen your friendship group and make sure there always room for one or two more.